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What's the difference between a masters and a doctoral degree?

Overview

If you are considering going to graduate school, you are probably wondering which kind of degree to get. The choice should not be too difficult, once you understand the differences among the two major degree types, doctorates and masters.

When considering the merits of a masters versus a doctoral degree, bear in mind that both will give you in-depth training in a specialized field. The usefulness of each degree depends on your academic and career interests. The higher the degree, the longer it takes to earn and the more specialized is its focus. For that reason, it's best to first look at what a doctorate is. Once you understand the relatively narrow scope and use of a doctorate, you may have an easier time understanding the masters by comparison.

What are doctoral degrees?

The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy or Ph.D. Ph.D.s and other research doctorates prepare students to initiate new projects that add to the collective knowledge base of the field. Candidates for and holders of Ph.D.s often seek careers as professors and researchers, but many also go on to varied roles in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "the research doctorate is the highest earned academic degree in U.S. postsecondary education."


Some important considerations

Going to graduate school for any degree and in any field, you should be prepared for a different experience from your undergraduate years. When you enroll in a graduate degree program, it's best to be motivated by professional and academic goals, and in many fields, to have a few years of work experience under your belt (work you did as an undergraduate counts!). Read about other things to consider when deciding to go to grad school here and here.


You may also be familiar with professional doctorates such as the M.D. (Medicinae Doctor) that medical school graduates earn, and the J.D. (Juris Doctor) that law school graduates earn. A large number of other doctorates exist. To get an idea of just how many degree types exist within doctorate-level study, check out Wikipedia's pages on the subject.

Typical program details

Students entering a Ph.D. program have already earned a bachelor's degree, and sometimes also a masters degree (depending on the Ph.D. program). Because of the nature of specialization, Ph.D. programs tend to be smaller than masters programs.

Ph.D. candidates begin by taking courses and exams, go on to taking advanced seminars and designing dissertation research, and complete their requirements by researching, writing, and defending a dissertation. A dissertation is the doctoral-level thesis, the culmination of a Ph.D. candidate's research into a topic, and typically the major requirement of earning the doctorate. Unfortunately, failure to complete the dissertation is a major reason some doctoral candidates don't complete their studies, but may claim "ABD" (All But Dissertation) on their resumes.

Doctorates may take up to eight years to earn—depending on the program, whether the student has already completed a masters degree (or is coming straight from undergraduate), and how long the student takes to write the dissertation.

Purpose and uses of a doctorate

A Ph.D. typically demonstrates a person's competence in research and qualifies them to become professors. It can also prepare them to play other roles (such as developing policy) in the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. Doctoral study offers a unique opportunity for an individual to conduct intensive and prolonged research on a very particular topic, which often leads to publication. Other reasons exist to get a Ph.D.—such as the desire to be called "Doctor," or the romantic notion of being a Ph.D. candidate at a prestigious institution—but these reasons pale in the light of the hard work and long years it takes to earn the distinction, if your professional goals do not require it.

What are masters degrees?

Masters degrees are more versatile than doctoral degrees, and have a wide range of professional and academic applications. According to the U.S. Department of Education, three types of masters programs exist: research, professional, and terminal.

Research masters degrees are typically for academic and applied research disciplines. Examples of the research masters degree include Master of Arts in History, Master of Arts in Comparative Literature, and Master of Science in Biology. In some fields, earning a research masters degree without going on to earn a Ph.D. severely restricts your professional options. If you are considering a research masters degree, discuss your educational options and career trajectory with professors or professionals in your field.

Professional masters degrees prepare a person to do professional work by introducing practical skills and frameworks for understanding issues in their field. Professional masters degrees may also qualify a person to practice in their field (Master of Social Work, Master of Architecture, or Master of Art in Teaching, for example). Most of the degrees featured at Idealist Grad Fairs are professional masters degrees.

Masters degrees that are the highest academic degree in their field are called "terminal masters." While some masters degrees may serve as the first step towards a doctorate, other—such as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or a Masters in Library Science—are as high as you can go for academic accreditation in those fields of study.

The most common masters degree types are Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) in a variety of subject areas. Other masters degrees exist, and Wikipedia has a long list.

Typical program details

Masters programs typically take one to three years. Students entering a masters degree program have already earned a bachelors degree, and so masters candidates take advanced-level courses and seminars. In some programs, students go on to research, write, and defend a masters thesis. In professional masters programs, the thesis is often replaced by final projects and exams.

Purposes and uses of a masters degree

The variety of masters degrees is vast, as are the purposes and uses of each. Masters degrees prepare a person for a range of pursuits through specialized study of a field.

Research masters enhance a student's research skills, prepare them for a Ph.D. program, and may help qualify them to teach in elementary, secondary, and community education settings. Professional masters degrees teach students skills they will need as practitioners in their respective fields, and may lead to credentials necessary to practice in the field.

Comparison chart of basic differences between masters and doctoral degrees

DoctoralMasters
Types and examplesAcademic or research (Ph.D., Ed.D), Professional (M.D., J.D.)Academic or research (MPhil), Professional (MPA, MSW), Terminal (MFA)
Why get this degree?To research, teach at the university level, is necessary for professionTo research, is necessary for profession, is an intermediate step before doctoral, broaden your knowledge of an issue/subject area, increase your skill set for a job
Time to complete degree2-8 years, full-time. Longer, part-time.1-3 years, full-time. Longer, part-time.

How do you decide which degree is right for you?

Depending both on your professional field and your educational goals, you may have to choose between a masters degree program and a Ph.D. program. You must determine what your career goals are, and which degree is most helpful to you. You can find out more about the requirements in your field by doing some basic internet research, asking admissions staff at schools, and conducting informational interviews with professionals.

If you are unsure right now what your ultimate goal is, you have at least a couple of choices:

  • You may choose to hold off on grad school for now to give yourself time to better discover and define your career goals.
  • You may start a masters program and later choose to go on to the Ph.D. program. (Note that your masters credits may not all transfer to the Ph.D. program. Check with your target school for details.)
  • In another scenario altogether, the masters degree in your field may be terminal—a higher degree may not exist. In this case, you don't have to decide whether or not to go on to a Ph.D. It's still wise to make your career goals explicit (at least to yourself) in deciding whether or not to go to grad school.

Examples of how people use masters and doctorates

Below are examples of how a masters degree and a doctorate are used in two different fields of study, social work and business.

If you want to go to graduate school to study social work, you can study at the masters level or the Ph.D. level. In this case, you must ask yourself what you want to do with your degree or what role you'd like to play in the field of social work. If you'd like to be a social welfare direct service provider or government agency administrator, a masters program may suffice. If you'd like to become a faculty member at a post-secondary institution, a social welfare research scholar, or a social welfare policy analyst, a Ph.D. program may be more helpful to you. Outside of academic settings—where a doctorate is the norm for scholarly positions—a masters combined with practical work experience may provide ample preparation for a career as a researcher, policy analyst, or mid-level manager.

Another example is in the field of business administration. You have the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) as one option, and the Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) as another. If you aim to take on a leadership role in a nonprofit or business enterprise, the MBA (or nonprofit management degree) is a useful pursuit. If you aim for a career in academia—teaching and researching on business practices—the DBA is the more appropriate course of study.

Conclusion and further resources

Knowing your professional goals will help guide your choices for graduate study. Certain career paths, such as becoming a public defender or a medical doctor, are very clearly marked with the necessary steps, including the required educational level and graduate degree. Other career paths are less regimented and therefore require more investigation and discovery on your part. Thoroughly researching your field of interest and having a strong understanding of the skills and knowledge you want and need from your graduate education will inform which degree options make the most sense for your goals.